America crazy about breadbox on wheels called Smart car

Linda Moudakas drives a Mercedes-Benz sedan with 140,000 miles on the odometer. For her next car, she's thinking of downsizing. Really downsizing.

She's in line to buy something that looks like a glorified golf cart, a car so short it can theoretically be legally parked head first along a curb. No hood. No trunk.

Behold, the Smart car.

"It's all the talk about the environment and wanting to do something," the Menlo Park, Calif., executive says as she eyes an array of Smart demonstration cars lined up here. To her, buying a Smart car with its 2008 EPA rating of about 40 miles per gallon on the highway amounts to treading lightly on Mother Earth.

Moudakas is among 30,000 people that Smart executives say have slapped down a refundable $99 for a reservation to buy one of the cars. When they appear on streets in about two months, it will be the start of what could become a new chapter in American motoring: the modern microcar.

"It turns heads wherever it goes," boasts David Schembri, president of Smart USA, a division of a megadealer that's importing the cars from automaker Daimler, which also makes Mercedes. "I tell people, 'If you want to feel like a rock star, drive this car.' "

Schembri and his crew are going to lengths to try to ensure a strong start. They are well on their way to signing up 73 initial Smart dealers across the country. They developed an elaborate test drive program that ran more than 50,000 drivers through during 50 stops around the country in the past few months. And they are selling — or more accurately, taking reservations — only through the Internet.

But before the first college fraternity can see how many students can be stuffed into one of his tiny two-seaters, Schembri faces some big challenges. After the initial flurry of sales, can buyer interest be sustained? Will well-heeled city dwellers who love the design also embrace its modest performance? Will moms and dads feel comfortable having their sons and daughters drive a tiny Smart car? And can it hold its own in a collision with a big American SUV?

Small is beautiful

A couple of automotive consultants think Americans are ready for an 8-foot, 8-inch car.

"There is a nice market for tight parking, people who want to drive something a bit different," says Michael Robinet, vice president of auto industry consultants CSM Worldwide. They will put up with the car's limitations "as long as they know this is not exactly a cross-country vehicle but an urban traveler."

With gas prices headed squarely past the $3-a-gallon mark again, "Timing couldn't be any better," says Bob Cosmai, a consultant and former CEO of Hyundai Motor America.

The Smart, which will be displayed starting later this week at the Los Angeles Auto Show, isn't new — only new to most of the USA. The original idea hearkens back to the 1970s, but took off after Nicolas Hayek, who founded the Swatch wristwatch line, announced in 1989 that he wanted to bring a newfangled small car to market. The Smart name comes from combining the S from Swatch, the M from Mercedes and ART.

Production of the Smart ForTwo, as the model is known, began in Hambach, France, in 1998. Daimler flirted with the idea of bringing it to the USA from the start. In 2004, the plan was to import the four-passenger sport-utility model. A year later, Smart was restructured and nixed the small SUV, so it never got here.

In 2006, Dieter Zetsche, CEO of what was then DaimlerChrysler, said the company would bring the little ForTwo to the USA instead. By then the car was already becoming a cultural icon, making an appearance both in the best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code and in the movie version starring Tom Hanks. Although gas prices were already climbing, Zetsche said the car's appeal in the USA would transcend fuel thrift.

Today, about 800,000 have been sold in 36 countries, including Canada. But in a twist that's in keeping with its quirkiness, Daimler won't sell Smart directly in the USA. That duty falls to the Penske Automotive Group, the nation's second-largest dealer chain. "I'm overwhelmed by the interest," says Roger Penske, the racing great and company CEO who has taken a personal hand in creating the Smart sales network.

The model coming to the USA was designed from the ground up for this market, Schembri says. While being fashioned with U.S. safety standards in mind, it's lost none of its eccentric character.

For owners who tire of their car's color, it's easy to change in a couple of hours. The body is swathed in plastic panels that can be switched out by a dealer or a skillful individual. Schembri says he envisions owners going to online auction sites to find fellow panel swappers. A "safety kit" can be purchased for the inside of the rear tailgate that includes items such as an umbrella, extra fuses and a flashlight

The Smart car will be priced in three versions: the $11,590 base-level Pure; the more decked-out and most popular $13,590 Passion; and top-of-the-line $16,590 convertible Passion Cabriolet. The more upscale models have luxury touches like paddle shifters, sunroofs and heated side mirrors. There's no spare tire. Instead, drivers get two years of free roadside assistance.

All Smart versions are powered by a three-cylinder engine behind the seats that develops 70 horsepower and has a top speed of 90 miles an hour. That's exactly half the horsepower of a base-level Honda Civic DX, which has a trunk and back seat and gets an average of only 4 miles less per gallon on the highway at a cost of $1,200 more than Passion.

More practical, almost certainly. But your average sedan lacks Smart's biggest draw.

"It's just cool," says Senya Fania, 30, a Range Rover owner who was passing by the Smart car event at a swanky San Jose boutique hotel. Sporting Ferragamo sunglasses with a Louis Vuitton bag draped from her arm, she added, "I think it could save gas and (create) less pollution."

What about safety?

Moudakas, a 57-year-old human resources administrator, says Smart wouldn't be a replacement for her aging Mercedes E320. Rather, it would be a welcome addition to the garage for around-town jaunts.

She notes one potential negative: "Everyone is saying, 'Aren't you concerned about safety?' " She's not.

To try to underscore Smart's safety to visiting reporters, Schembri's team hauled in one that was smashed in the rear in a 50-mph test. There was no intrusion into the passenger compartment. They also showed videos of front-crash tests and a mannequin-filled Smart car rolling over and over like someone kicking an empty soda can. One of the tests involved hitting an S-Class Mercedes, which weighs more than twice as much. The point is always the same: The safety cage surrounding the passengers always held up.

The latest model received four out of five stars in tests by the Euro NCAP, a government-sponsored European auto-testing agency, one more than the previous model. The agency's statement on the results, however, warns that the frontal impact test is based only on striking "another car of similar mass."

That offers no assurance about how the Smart will fare if it smacks into a big, hulking American SUV.

No problem, the Smart engineers say. "All the crash tests show the Smart has extraordinary performance" in holding up through an accident, says Karl-Heinz Baumann, the Mercedes engineer in charge of this latest model. Not only is the shell that protects passengers difficult to penetrate, but the interior has more room for them to bounce around, an added safety factor. The car has four air bags, anti-lock brakes, stability control and a collapsing steering column.

Baumann says Mercedes studies real accidents in countries where the car is sold to validate its design. Marc Ross, an emeritus physics professor at the University of Michigan who has studied small-car safety, says a car like the Smart is not unsafe, per se. If the car's safety shell holds up, passengers stand a good chance of survival or lesser injury in a serious accident. "Intrusion is the most serious threat to survival," he says.

Who needs advertising?

If the car seems unconventional, so is the way it's being sold. Schembri says he isn't advertising it. No need. Not with 30,000 online reservations in the bank. Instead, he says, he came up with the road show because the car has to be experienced from the driver's seat.

Smart car officials won't say how many cars they expect to deliver in the first six months, only that they'll meet demand, which so far has amounted to eight out of every 10 reservation holders saying they still want to buy one.

Dealers will deliver cars to customers but won't have any to sell off the lot, at least at first. At Mercedes-Benz of San Francisco, where the upstairs portion of the showroom has become a splashy Smart car studio, the only Smart cars available are for demonstration purposes.

Inventory may be lacking, but not enthusiasm. "I'm completely psyched," says an otherwise buttoned-down Bill Scott, the dealer's Smart brand manager. He says he put in his own Smart car reservation before he knew he would be hawking them.

Smart cars are expected to sell briskly in San Francisco because on-street parking is at such a premium. The car's 28-foot turning radius won't hurt, either.

So far, slightly more men than women have plunked down reservations to buy. They have above-average income, 80% own their home, and overwhelmingly they want to be reached through the Internet. Schembri says he expects the car to draw from a wide range of mostly urban hipsters.

"The target customer will not be defined by age or income, but by attitude and lifestyle," he says.

That attitude: Quirky? Eccentric?

Naw. Just call them downsizers.

TELL US: Would you buy a Smart car? Would the advantages, such as fuel economy and ease of parking, outweigh safety concerns for you?